When I saw Twelfth Night at the National Theatre last year, I didn’t really get it. I understood the plot, and there were some good performances, but it wasn’t funny. The play got laughs, but they sounded half-hearted. To me it seemed like people were laughing just to prove that they knew it was funny, rather than as a genuine response to the rather staid action. I thought maybe Twelfth Night just wasn’t for me; this was Shakespeare at the National, directed by Peter Hall and starring Simon Callow and Rebecca Hall, so it should have been amazing. But recently I thought that I’d give the play another try at the Globe, and I’m glad that I did.
Hall’s production was skilfully played out, but slightly dull; in contrast the Globe’s production really captured the spirit of the play. It featured an outstanding all-male ensemble cast; Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Fry, James Garnon and Mark Rylance all gave great performances although Rylance as Olivia tended to steal the scene. The decision to have an all-male cast, a replication of the Globe’s production 10 years earlier (which featured many of this cast), gave an extra dimension to the idea of dissemblance and gender. Viola is now a man, dressed as a woman, disguised as a man – as she would have been in Shakespeare’s day.
The dialogue and physical comedy were honed to perfection, really bringing the play to life. The Globe was packed, and the atmosphere really added to the experience. It really demonstrates the importance of a production; last year I was ready to give up on Twelfth Night as a rather dull Shakespeare “comedy” but the Globe’s version has converted me; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and deserves the West End transfer it will receive this Autumn.
From its announcement, Parade’s End has inevitably drawn comparisons with ITV’s Downton Abbey. I enjoy Downton, but it’s completely outclassed by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s work. I hadn’t read it before I learnt of the BBC adaptation but, borrowing the books from the university library, I found them deeply engaging as a portrait of the tumultuous state of the aristocracy, and the country, in the early twentieth century.
Downton tends to cover social change with quite inconsequential details such as the addition of a telephone to the house, and Sybil’s involvement in the Suffragette movement seems intended largely to generate drama and familial discord rather than to make any insightful point. While Downton portrays the period in a descriptive way, Ford’s work is a detailed exploration of the decline of the aristocracy, the impact of the First World War and changing social ideals.
Both Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens and Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia give excellent performances; these characters could have been distinctly unlikeable in the wrong hands. Cumberbatch was the obvious choice for the conservative, intellectual and emotionally repressed Tietjens, and he certainly delivered in his portrayal of the complex emotions suppressed behind Tietjens’ controlled façade. Hall gives Sylvia, portrayed unsympathetically in the books, enough likeability to prevent us from condemning her outright as she amuses herself at the expense of others.
The BBC drama adopts the fractured structure of the novel, flitting between time and place at the start of the first episode. It certainly demands your attention, but is easier to follow than I feared it might be (perhaps aided by the fact that I have read the book). While the first episode largely sets the (rather complicated) scene, I’m looking forward to the next instalment, which promises an increase in the action and the onset of war.